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On Protecting My Kids After a Loss

Photograph by Getty Images

My kids dive into the small pile of leaves I just raked. The air is warm for Autumn, and they giggle breathlessly as they surface, bits of leaves clinging to their hair. It’s one of those moments I’m completely present for, the type of scene I dreamed of when I imagined becoming a parent.

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“Can you get me a snack?” My almost 3-year-old asks. Her hands are sticky with resin from the pine cones we collected earlier.

“Sure. Maxie, can you watch her while I grab you guys a snack?” I ask my 5-year-old. He agrees, and I sprint toward the house, glancing backwards before I duck inside. We live on a dead-end road in a sleepy neighborhood, and yet during the less than two minutes I’m inside the house, I imagine a car crashing into one of my kids. I can see it vividly: a small broken body, blood and leaves everywhere. I can hear the seed of my own scream simmering in my head.

I rush back outside, snacks in hand. My babies are fine.

I exhale.

Recently, a friend posted a fear to a group of mom friends.

“I get these images sometimes of awful things happening to my son. Am I crazy?”

Soon, dozens of others chimed in with their own vivid imaginings of horrific things happening to their children. Though saddened by the anxiety and fears of my friends, I also found myself comforted. My mind often plays these dark movies of something awful happening to one of my children.

I’m all too familiar with the scene of a parent losing a child.

When I was 24, my little brother — my only sibling — died suddenly of drug and alcohol intoxication. He was 21.

My life immediately was bisected into before and after. Though I’ve packed a lot of life into the 15 years since my brother’s death, including several moves, a marriage, two children, and a handful of careers, the loss remains among the most defining events of my life.

The invisible cord that connects us to our children is the strongest thing I’ve ever felt. It beats like a heart, leaving us exposed and raw and buoyant.

When my mom called me to tell me the terrible news, one of the first thoughts that raced through my brain was this happens to other people — not to my family.

And yet it did happen to my family. I was shattered. My parents were shattered. I watched them grieve, realizing I’d not only lost my brother, but that my parents, as I’d known them before, were also gone.

The bubble of safety that I’d unknowingly thought surrounded my family popped. With no warning, people I loved, people I thought I couldn’t live without, could be wrenched from me.

As deep as my own loss was, it was clear that my parents bore something even deeper and more wretched. “Be strong for your parents,” people said to me at my brother’s memorial service. I knew they meant well, though their pleas minimized the immense loss I was facing — my sibling, the person I thought would be here for my whole life.

Now that I have kids of my own, I understand why people told me to be strong for my mom and dad. The invisible cord that connects us to our children is the strongest thing I’ve ever felt. It beats like a heart, leaving us exposed and raw and buoyant.

Like most parents, I’d do anything to protect my children. And yet I know that might not be enough.

Having seen firsthand what happens when parents outlive their children, I wonder if I experience these fears more than others.

It’s a powerless feeling to look at these little creatures, full of innocence and will and love, and know that I can’t always protect them.

I don’t know what to do with the anxiety. It’s not helpful — these thoughts don’t make me a better or more cautious parent. They certainly don’t protect my children or ensure their safety. Perhaps I just continue to live around the thoughts and fears, knowing they are the aftershocks of my brother’s death, as well as being part of parenthood.

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I can’t protect my children all the time. All I can do is love the hell out of them, try to teach them good habits and warn them about the deepest pitfalls. And ask the universe for help. Each night I whisper into the dark: Let them outlive us. Keep them safe, keep them happy, keep them healthy.

Keep them here.

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